Equity & Diversity Q&A

How Schools Can Address Racial Stressors, An Expert Explains

By Ileana Najarro — March 23, 2023 6 min read
Student alone in an empty school hallway (blurred). Bullying, discrimination and racism.
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Farzana Saleem, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education, has focused her research on understanding how parents of color talk to their children about race and prepare them for racism, with a particular focus on how Black youth and families are having these conversations.

At a time when states are passing legislation limiting how teachers can discuss race and racism in K-12 schools, Saleem is now looking into how schools and teachers play a role in interventions for students of color dealing with racial stressors both in and out of school, whether that’s being called a racial slur, or witnessing discrimination, etc. Earlier this year she and her colleagues launched an 11-week intervention program in four northern California schools, around helping middle and high school students address and heal from racial stress and trauma.

Saleem spoke with Education Week about her research, and why it’s important that everyone working in a school environment be cognizant of racial stressors, their impact, and what responsibility they have to intervene.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are racial stressors and how do they impact students?

When we talk about racial stressors, these can be any type of race-based stressor or race-based situation. This could be interpersonal experiences, like you might think about someone calling someone a racial slur. This could be vicarious, so witnessing things that are happening. This type of stress can manifest in different ways that impact different aspects of a person’s adjustment or mood.

When we think about it in the context of trauma, some common characteristics that we see in ways that this manifests in terms of potential stress is that, again, it might affect mood. So that might be sadness, that might be irritability, that might be anxiety, that could be physiological arousal. So that could be noticing their increased heart rate, this could be hypervigilance, so like a lot of worry. It could be avoidance of places, or things that remind you of specific situations. It could also be thinking about or re-experiencing thoughts or intrusion, about a situation that happened.

How can you help students address racial stressors, and the trauma/impact that ensues?

It depends on the provider, and depends on the approach. There are different ways that you might think about this. There is a framework called radical healing and it talks a lot about the importance of different components that are essential to the healing process of race-related stress and trauma. What we do in our intervention—which builds on or is informed by the psychological framework of radical healing—is teaching youth about understanding. If it’s trauma or any other mental health concern, there’s usually psychoeducation, and that’s learning about what are these things that are going on. How do I even understand it, and be able to put words to it, or name what’s happening? So understanding what is discrimination, what is trauma. Teaching them and building an awareness around that is one part.

Another part is helping them understand how these experiences are impacting their mind and their body. And so within, for example, a therapeutic framework of cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s understanding the connection between experiences that happen, like racism, that influence the thought patterns that they have, and also helping them resist the idea of internalizing these stressors. Because so often what might happen, and what we want to prevent, is kids experiencing discrimination, and then internalizing it to think there’s something wrong with [them]. [Instead, we want them] to be able to say, hey, there’s not something wrong with me, I now understand that mistreatment could have happened because of my race and trying to help them be able to not internalize the types of identity-based threats and stressors that are around them. As well as understanding how again, it’s impacting [their] behavior.

Farzana Saleem

So awareness of the body, and then learning strategies on how to respond in the face of discrimination. So thinking about what my options are? How do I think through my options, what is safe? Because in some cases, your life could be at risk. So how can we help them think through the pros and cons of different options? If I punch someone in the face when they call me a racial slur, what consequences might that pose, to telling a trusted adult, or documenting the situation and coming back to it?

We know that having a healthy ethnic/racial identity can be a protective factor. Learning about the history of your group can be a protective factor. And when I say that, I mean, there are studies that show that in the context of racism when I have a healthier sense of my racial identity, racial/ethnic identity and cultural pride, that can reduce the negative effects of racial discrimination.

How can schools specifically help students address and process racial stressors?

I think for a long time, providers have overlooked the identity based traumas and stressors, including race-related stress and trauma. And so essentially, what I would say is, we need to gain a better awareness of what it means to be trauma-informed, taking into account things like racism, and other intersecting forms of oppression.

We’re thinking about how to increase safety, physical safety, and psychological safety for all students. We’re thinking about building a sense of trust both among students and faculty. We’re thinking about collaboration about addressing these issues. I think there’s also this idea of collectivism. We’re thinking about empowerment, in giving folks a voice to be able to express what is going well, what’s not going well. We’re thinking about the acknowledgment of cultural historical issues. And again, this can be race-related, this can be at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities that students might hold. These are just principles of what we need.

But I think that there’s also a tiered approach [to] this process. As a psychologist, I am trained to think about how can we equip individuals with skills related to promoting healthy mental health and adjustment. So I am thinking a lot about how I arm my kids that I’m working with, with tools to be able to adjust, bounce back, and thrive in the face of the stressor. When we think about schools, yes, we need to do that.

We also need to be thinking about staff and peers. So how are we thinking about ways to help them be able to support students, but also do their own work? This could be work around their own critical consciousness. If we want them to be able to address these issues, I think first there has to be their own awareness of their identity and an exploration of their awareness of systems of oppression. That can be through professional development, but perhaps we need to be thinking about novel ways to make sure that staff at schools are exposed to this and it’s not a one time PD.

I’m not expecting a teacher to do the same thing that a school counselor would do. But I am expecting that a teacher would have some sort of foundation to where, if a student calls another student a racial slur in the classroom, they feel confident in ways that they might be able to address that. Or if a student comes to them and says, ‘Hey, I witnessed this,’ that they aren’t going to just completely avoid conversation about it.

There’s also this larger systems level when we think about systems, policies, and practices in schools. So how can we challenge the policies and practices that are going on in a school context as well? Schools that were banning natural hairstyles that are specific to racial or cultural groups, how are we interrogating that and taking a real look at that? I think the principles that I mentioned earlier are important to that process.

Beyond the school context, we have larger structures and systems, including state policies that are banning conversations around these topics and schools banning content. It’s recognizing that all of this is existing within this larger context of our society and policies that are having direct impact on schools. And in some ways, I think schools and teachers might feel like their hands are tied. We need to be thinking about ways that we can still encourage teachers and schools to even be able to address or push back at that policy level.

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